The mother of a State University of Buffalo student killed aboard Pan American's Flight 103 charged the airline Thursday with being more concerned about making a dollar than protecting lives.
"I'm really upset with Pan Am," said Betty Capasso of Brooklyn, whose son was studying filmmaking in England and would have graduated from UB this spring. The plane exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec. 21, killing all 258 people aboard.
Mrs. Capasso and her husband, Salvatore, came to Buffalo Thursday to attend a memorial service at UB for their son, Gregory Capasso, 21, and to formally announce the establishment of a film scholarship in his name.
After the service, Mrs. Capasso said she was suspicious when she learned that the Boeing 747 jumbo jet had more than 150 empty seats during the busy Christmas season. She said the flight was full a month or more beforehand, because she knew of students who had tried to book the flight and could not. At the last minute, however, there were numerous empty seats. Some passengers were offered half-price fares, she said, presumably to try and fill up the aircraft.
Mrs. Capasso said she believes the explanation for the vacant seats was that government employees had been forewarned about the flight.
"Where were they all?" she asked.
Mrs. Capasso acknowledged that three State Department employees and the Central Intelligence Agency's station chief in Beirut, Lebanon, died in the crash. But, she said, they apparently had decided the bomb threat was unsubstantiated.
It had been confirmed that American embassies were notified of a possible attempt against a Pan Am flight from Frankfurt. A notice was placed on the bulletin board at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow suggesting that employees might want to avoid that flight.
The ill-fated jet originated in Frankfurt and then stopped in London, where passengers transferred to the Boeing 747 bound for New York.
A Pan Am spokesman said Thursday that the flight had room for 410 people. Of the 258 on board, 243 were passengers, and the rest were airline personnel. That meant more than 150 seats were empty, he said.
Spokesman Alan Loflin said that Wednesday -- which was the day of the doomed flight -- is a slow day for trans-Atlantic travel year round, even at Christmastime.
"We ran a day-by-day comparison of occupancy for Flight 103 and found that it was 5 percent higher than normal for the month," Loflin said.
He said an allegation similar to Mrs. Capasso's had been raised earlier this month by families of crash victims who called a press conference to demand that President Bush create an independent commission to investigate the actions of the airline and the U.S. government in the wake of the tragedy.
Loflin denied that any special half-price fare had been offered to fill up the plane.
"It's not the way we do business," he said. "If anything, unsold seats go to employees."
During Thursday's memorial service, the Capassos donated a book to UB's library that they originally had intended as a Christmas present for their son when he returned from England.
An inscription reads: "In celebration of Gregory Capasso, student of film, who is his own special effect."
Gregory's friends eulogized him as an adventurous spirit and a talented writer who had a knack for comedy. One student noted that he had given his girlfriend of three years a cactus plant instead of flowers -- because the cactus wouldn't die.
He had just finished a semester in London at Middlesex Polytechnic, where he was taking courses in film and English. Much of his previous year at UB was spent concentrating on the works of Shakespeare as part of a double major in English and media study.